Response to Tragedy

In light of the recent tragedy in Paris, I thought I would discuss a little bit about how we should talk to our children about these types of events.

I want to begin with the statement that the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) put out:

  Sunday, November 15, 2015 

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Bethesda, MD—On behalf of our 25,000 members, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) joins the nation in expressing our sadness and shock at the horrific acts of terrorism in Paris, France. Our thoughts go out to the French people and to everyone affected by this heartbreaking tragedy.

Intentional acts of violence that hurt innocent people are frightening and upsetting, particularly when they are accompanied by explicit threats of further harm. Modern media can make international events feel relevant and potentially threatening to children and youth here. They will look to adults for models of how to react, and to help them understand the event. Families and school personnel can support children by establishing a sense of safety and security, helping children to process their thoughts and feelings, and placing the event in the proper context.  Additional tips include:

  • Provide accurate reassurances regarding the possibility of terrorism in their community.
  • Return to normalcy and routine to the extent possible while maintaining flexibility.
  • Let children know it’s okay to have many different feelings and there is no one right way to respond.
  • Be a good listener and observer
  • Monitor and limit exposure to media, including social media and other Internet sites
  • Provide ways for children to express emotion, such as journaling, writing letters, talking, art, or music
  • Focus on resiliency as well as the compassion of others
  • Identify the various ways in which people are helping; emphasize the ability to do good

A natural reaction to acts of extreme violence is the desire to lash out and punish the perpetrators or perceived enemy. People who are angry or frightened often feel the ability to “fight back” puts them more in control or will alleviate their sense of outrage. While anger is a normal response, we should not compound an already tragic situation and react against innocent individuals with vengeance and harassment. There is a tremendous risk of unfairly stigmatizing people who are perceived to resemble the perpetrators because of their race, language, religion, or the way they dress.

Children, in particular, may have difficulty channeling their feelings appropriately and they can easily pick up negative or demeaning cues given by adults around them. Given the diversity of America’s schools, some students may become targets of hostility and blame. Bullying and harassment are never acceptable but they can be particularly damaging when certain students or segments of society feel especially vulnerable. Families and school personnel need to be prepared to prevent and to intervene quickly and effectively in the presence of abusive behaviors toward any students. Such behaviors can only further contribute to the risk of violence in schools and communities.

Adults can help children understand the importance of treating all people with dignity and not judging entire groups of people for the actions of a few. Most importantly, adults must model compassion and acceptance of differences in their words and behavior. They can encourage children to explore their feelings about prejudice and hate. Doing so is not only critical to preventing further harm, but the process presents a potentially powerful opportunity for our youth to learn and to incorporate into their values the true strength of our country—our commitment to individual freedom and upholding the respect and dignity of all people.

For additional information on helping children cope and promoting compassion, peace and acceptance of differences, visit


Here are some specific tips that teachers and parents can utilize in helping children cope:


How Parents and Teachers Can Help

There are some guidelines we can follow that will help when talking to young children about the tragedy: Kidlutions

1. Don’t Assume the Child Knows Nothing

Although you may not have told the child about the tragedy, he may have overheard adult conversations or other schoolmates discussing the situation, view a TV news bulletin or see graphic images on TV.

2. Ask

If your child begins asking questions about what happened in Paris, you will absolutely want to discuss it with him.  Ask: “What do you know?” “What did you hear?” Listen for what the child knows, so you can respond accordingly.

3. Tell

Tell the truth, but in an age-appropriate manner.  You do not have give all of the details.  Young children benefit from hearing the basics: “A bad person hurt some people. It was scary. Lots of good people rushed in to help.”

4. Be Honest

Share that a bad thing did happen, but that it is being taken care of by helper people.

5. Focus on the Positives

Focus on the “helper” people. When bad things happen, helper people come to help. Police and ambulance workers got there quickly to help the people they could. You might say,  “Lots of good people are helping the town now. Policemen, firefighters, ambulance workers, neighbors, counselors and clergy all came rushing in to help. People will be very sad. The people will help each other start to feel better.”

6. Let Them Know They are Safe

Young children may think that their own personal safety is at risk. Let them know that they are safe and that things will remain the same in your community and household (if that is true). Acknowledge that it is a scary thing that happened. What happened in Paris almost never, ever, ever happens. That is the truth.  This does not constitute a “lie” to children. This situation is absolutely tragic.  Beyond comprehension.  What happened in Paris is scary, senseless and unfathomable, but statistically speaking, these types of events are rare.  This is what we want to focus on to help increase a child’s sense of safety.

6. Limit Media Exposure

With cable and sattellite TV, news outlets are available 24/7. Be careful to ensure that your child is not exposed to ongoing stories about the tragedy. Young children may believe the shootings/bombings are happening over and over again, or are still going on. Best to find the news you are looking for after they are in bed, or on your computer or mobile device.

7. Be Discreet

It’s normal for you to want to process this tragedy with friends and family (it’s normal to talk to things over and get support from others). When you do so, make sure your children are out of earshot. Manage your own feelings and fears and take caution to make sure your children cannot hear you.

8.  Give Plenty of Hugs

Children always need physical affection, but they may need even more during times of stress or anxiety.  Hugs, back rubs and other physical activities and close contact sooth the limbic system (the “seat” of the emotions in the brain).


I hope these tips have been helpful.  Trying to understand such a terrible tragedy is difficult for all of us, but even more difficult for young children to understand.  Give lots of love, hugs, and compassion!!!!

Have a great week!



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